There is seemingly always more in the Elliott Smith archives, a fact that fans of the late musician have learned to bittersweet effect in the years since the songwriter’s 2003 death. First there was From a Basement on the Hill, the project that gathered his final batch of material, an album overseen posthumously by Rob Schnapf and Joanna Bolme. New Moon, a two-disc compilation shepherded by Smith archivist Larry Crane, covered unreleased material from his early years. And Kill Rock Stars, which now controls much of Smith’s catalog, released a handful of outtakes in 2012.
There’s been little officially since then, though a number of bootleg recordings and studio sessions have made their way online over the years, mostly through fan message boards. So Heaven Adores You, the next collection of Smith archival material, is a major release, a soundtrack and companion to the documentary film of the same name.
The film is at its best covering Smith’s early years, particularly his seminal time in Portland as a member of Heatmiser and emerging solo artist. Likewise, the soundtrack plucks from his origins to illuminating and amusing effect—there’s an instrumental covered in classic rock soloing (“Untitled Melancholy Song”), a keys-and-drums jam with Heatmiser’s Neil Gust (“Hamburgers”) and the proto-Elliott pop of “I Love My Room,” a song that reveals the young musician’s considerable instrumental capabilities and still-in-progress lyrical and vocal gifts.
One of the fascinating elements of Smith’s songwriting was his rewrites: songs he sang live one way arrived on studio albums years later with new lyrics, a process that his studio outtakes also confirm. His work is laid out on “Don’t Call Me Billy,” an early version of “Fear City,” a Smith rocker with riffs to match his Heatmiser days. In demo form, it includes a head-turning spoken-word section: “Billy’s so cool, Billy’s so great,” Smith says sarcastically, a moment of genuine irritation or perhaps knowing silliness, which might be why it didn’t make the final cut. Equally surprising, an early take on “Coast to Coast” has a muddled middle—the sharp transitions that defined his writing hadn’t been worked out yet. So much of Smith’s work sounds effortless: it’s a thrill to sense the sweat that went into it.
A lot of this material works best as historical documentation, though it has its share of essential moments. There’s a gorgeous instrumental (the “unknown” seventh track) that could’ve fit on Roman Candle and revels in the woozy cowboy sound that occasionally made its way into the Texas-born Smith’s material. “Christian Brothers,” a song from Smith’s second album, is reborn here in a full-band Heatmiser incarnation, electric and incandescent. What might have been, had Smith held back more of his solo material for the promising band?
And then, “True Love”: if we never get another thorough posthumous release, this is Smith’s last stunner, a near-mythological song that first appeared in a Basement bootleg release in 2005. The Heaven Adores You film treads lightly with Smith’s final years and violent, unsolved death, but the singer’s music never held back. Graced with strings and tender, waltzing guitars, “True Love” finds Smith writing with more of his last album’s bleak frankness: “All I need is a safe place to bleed/is this where it’s at?” It ends with transcendence, or maybe defeat: “Take me out of this place,” he sings, his voice high and trembling. “Take me up with you today.”